||NIAAA acting director Dr. Kenneth Warren
In celebration of its 40th anniversary, NIAAA invited distinguished researchers from across the alcohol research spectrum to participate in a symposium on Oct. 4. The symposium provided a venue for highlighting the work that has been accomplished over the last 40 years, documenting
the significant advances that have occurred during this time and forecasting what the future holds for the field.
Acting NIAAA director Dr. Kenneth Warren opened the event by discussing the current breadth of alcohol research and the significant progress made over the past 40 years.
Forty years ago, little was known about alcoholism
and heredity. Dr. Tatiana Foroud of Indiana University School of Medicine described studies
of twins raised apart from one another and how this helped confirm that family history and genes play an important role in the risk for alcoholism.
Based on this and other work, it is now known that about half of a person’s risk for alcohol
problems is genetic and half is due to a variety of social factors.
Presenters at NIAAA’s 40th-anniversary symposium pose with NIAAA acting director Dr. Kenneth Warren (standing, third from l). They are (standing, from l) Dr. Tatiana Foroud, Dr. Robert Anthenelli, Dr. Robert Voas, Dr. Michael Windle and Dr. Raul Caetano. Seated are (from l) Dr. Edith V. Sullivan, Dr. Jennifer Thomas and Dr. Pranoti Mandrekar.
Thomas discusses the serious consequences for fetuses when mothers drink during pregnancy.
Further, intensive research efforts have pinpointed
a number of specific genes involved in alcohol
dependence as well as their functions. Foroud said this work may open the door for new treatments
and medications tailored expressly for the individual, leading to personalized treatment for alcohol dependence.
Although it has long been known that alcohol alters behavior and perception, neuroscience has vastly increased the understanding of how alcohol
affects the brain and its functioning. Dr. Edith Sullivan of Stanford University School of Medicine
described how alcohol use, both short- and long-term, can have serious effects on the structure
of the brain and how it processes information,
leading, in some cases, to severe mental disabilities.
Dr. Robert Anthenelli of the University of Cincinnati
College of Medicine described how alcohol
use and abuse often are intertwined with other co-occurring mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic
stress disorder. Some of these effects have been traced to the body’s responses to stress; those responses vary considerably in men and women. Co-occurring disorders are an important
area of inquiry as they present challenges for both diagnosis and treatment. Therefore, research in this area is vital to successful treatment
for many individuals.
The brain is not the only organ negatively
affected by alcohol. Early research linked alcohol use to damage to the liver, the organ responsible for breaking down alcohol and helping to eliminate it from the body. Recognizing
liver damage from alcohol was just the beginning of our understanding of the medical
consequences of alcohol abuse. Dr. Pranoti Mandrekar of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center summarized the latest findings on the effects of alcohol on the body, including the liver, heart, gastrointestinal system, as well as the immune system.
A common misperception from the past was that alcoholism was found primarily in middle-aged men. Research now shows that alcohol dependence is found in people of all ages, both genders and a variety of ethnicities, and that the highest prevalence of dependence is found among those ages 18-24.
Dr. Michael Windle of Emory University discussed
the problem of underage alcohol use. Particularly troubling is the effect that alcohol may have on the developing brain. Studies show that the brain continues to develop into a person’s mid-20s, and the consumption of alcohol during this time, particularly frequent binge drinking, can affect both memory and behavior.
Dr. Jennifer Thomas of San Diego State University
described how the fetus is at risk for serious
consequences when mothers drink during pregnancy. Exposure to alcohol prenatally may result in varying degrees of physical, mental and behavioral problems. Research is now helping
to identify specific interventions that can mitigate these problems.
The broader effects of alcohol on society were addressed by Dr. Robert Voas of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, who discussed
how alcohol consumption is related to public safety. Research has helped to shape policies
and laws that have had significant positive
effects. These include raising the minimum drinking age to 21—a law that significantly decreased the number of traffic deaths among young adults—and drinking-and-driving laws that protect all ages across the nation.
In closing, Warren thanked the speakers for their “truly outstanding presentations that directly demonstrated the explosion of the knowledge in the alcohol field over the past 40 years.” Importantly, research is being translated
into practice. Increased knowledge of genetics,
neuroscience and other fields has led to new medications and treatments, offering hope to people who suffer from alcohol abuse and dependence. And advances in our understanding
of alcohol’s effects—both harmful and beneficial—
are helping to improve public health.